Emily Alone, Stewart O'Nan, Viking, 2011, 255 pp
After finishing Wish You Were Here, I went immediately into Emily Alone, the sequel. I was already intimately involved with this family and though Wish You Were Here was far from an ideal novel, it was worth having read it because I could more exactly track with Emily as she lives through a winter and spring in her Pittsburgh home.
In this novel, approximately eight years have passed since Emily's beloved husband Henry died of cancer. She lives alone with Rufus, her aging springer spaniel, surrounded by her furniture, paintings, china and silver, listening to classical music, reading novels and suffering from loneliness and the indignities of her own aging. She is the oldest remaining woman in her neighborhood, her best friend having died a year ago. Attending funerals is now a constant in her life.
Emily's closest companion is her sister-in-law Arlene, who lives nearby. Once a week they have breakfast together at Eat'n'Park's two-for-one breakfast buffet. Emily clips the coupon from the Sunday "Post-Gazette." Arlene drives, badly, which makes Emily highly nervous though she knows she should feel grateful.
If Stewart O'Nan didn't write so close to the bone, these two women and their mishaps would be comedic. Somehow Jonathan Franzen makes this sort of thing funny, but that is not O'Nan's way.
Over the past decade I watched my father succumb to Alzheimer's, finally going into a home where he died at the age of 87. Then I watched my mother grieve, age and go on to live alone for five more years until a series of strokes finally ended her life. Reading about Emily battling with loneliness and a deteriorating body while being continually disappointed by her son and daughter, yet living for Thanksgiving, Christmas and a week in the summer at Lake Chautauqua, when she can be together with them and her grandchildren, I felt I was going through it all over again. It was almost too much for me.
If you have watched a parent or grandparent move through this period of life that our society calls "The Golden Years" or if you are going through it yourself, I advise you approach Emily Alone with extreme caution. I was talking to my sister about it all and we both decided that, should we find ourselves outliving our husbands, we certainly will not live alone.
I used to want to live to be 100 and become wise. It might be wiser to quit while I am ahead. Maybe I will take up a dangerous sport. I don't enjoy sports though. Possibly race car driving. I like driving, a lot. Emily liked driving also. She finally traded in her old gas hog for an all-wheel drive Subaru wagon, as did my mom.
Did I find this book depressing? Oh, just a little.
(Emily Alone is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Wish You Were Here is available in paperback.)